An Invasion to Worry About - Earth Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Timothy Dillon

By Timothy Dillon

Wildlife Biologist Chris Trosen demonstrates the art of invasive species removal. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

April hosts a number of eco-centric days and expressions, from April showers bringing May flowers, to Earth Day, all the way to National Invasive Plant, Pest, and Disease Awareness Month. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a service of the US Department of Agriculture, recently disclosed a press release declaring April their month to raise awareness about invasive species and commonplace preventative measures against them.

The Burmese Python invasion in Florida has been one of the most notable onslaughts in recent years. These snakes were introduced to the Keys sometime before 2007, as that was when a researcher first discovered them. This non-native snake threatens over 25 species of birds and countless small mammals in the area. Though not known for attacking humans, these snakes do threaten the vitality of the Keys’ ecosystem and need to be removed before they shift biodiversity well beyond the point of no return.

The story of the Burmese Python easily garnered press because many people fear snakes; but while invasive species can cause damage to local habitats and native species, one of the biggest problems with these alien critters tends to be in regards to agriculture and farming. Furthermore, it is usually the small pests that pose the greater threat.

At the beginning of April, APHIS launched its campaign to help raise awareness about species like the Giant African Snail, the European Gypsy Moth, and the Mediterranean Fruit Fly, all of which have the potential to devastate plant life across the country. The campaign involved the use of social media, a radio tour in English and Spanish across the southern states affected most by invasive species, and the launch of several blogs aimed at increasing awareness regarding how people tend to traffic these insects from habitat to habitat. Met with an overwhelming success, the USDA website, HungryPests.com, felt a spike of 15,000 new users over the course of the month.

There is no doubt that APHIS has managed to raise awareness, but is isolation and eradication really necessary action towards all invasive species? Some argue no.

In a TED talk presented by Angela Moles, Associate Professor in the School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences in Australia, she argues that at a certain point, invasive species can and do become native species. In fact, Moles believes that invasive species are really just an extension of natural selection and evolution.

It would seem that humanity is actually trying to stop the natural order of evolution by maintaining the status quo. After all, biodiversity is what progresses and actually strengthens ecosystems in the long term. But it is not as cut and dry as Moles would have us believe.

Greg Rosenthal, Public Affairs Specialist with USDA and APHIS concludes that what makes most of these invasive species’ migration different from a natural spreading of wildlife is human assistance. In regards to which species pose the biggest threats to nation right now, “unfortunately, there are so many species to choose from,” Rosenthal says.

“While species can spread naturally, human assisted movement is what we are trying to prevent. We need to be very vigilant when it comes to these issues because it could mean devastating effects for agriculture and native species,” Rosenthal explains.

With one in 12 jobs in our economy directly related to agriculture and farming, invasive species pose not just an ecological threat, but a financial one as well. Especially when you consider that the US is number one monetarily in agricultural exports in the world.

“From the ‘06-’07 growing season to the ‘10-’11 season, you have 8,200 jobs lost and over $4.5 billion in fruit lost to the citrus greening disease in Florida,” Rosenthal explains.

In addition to offering helpful tips on how to prevent spreading species, the USDA also works in close cooperation with border protection, which is common way foreign species, such as the Mexican Fruit Fly, hitchhike their way into the States. Imports and exports are carefully screened for items laden with pests or their potential offspring. Of course, no system is perfect, which is why APHIS has turned to the public for support.

The threat of foreign species invading is not just limited to rearranging the native ecosystems. As with all things in nature, there is a ripple effect. First it endangers native species, which in turn offsets the biodiversity, usually leading to an explosion of the invasive species because they lack the natural regulation of predators and prey. In regards to human agriculture, these crops are especially vulnerable since pests and insects can spread through them so quickly. So it would seem that the eradication of these pests is necessary in maintaining a healthy economy and healthy crops.

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